Making Sense of Desensitization
by Miri Korbman
As the pandemic and its far-reaching consequences continue to affect us in many areas of our lives, many people have been talking about the risk of burnout. Burnout can manifest in many ways, including sadness, fatigue, and hopelessness, but also in apathy and desensitization. One may think that becoming desensitized to the trials and challenges we’re facing enables us to plow forward unaffected and therefore more effectively, but that is not the case. When we are desensitized we are no longer in touch with reality as it really is, and this makes us highly ineffective. When we can no longer feel sadness or fear, we can no longer feel empathy; when we cannot approach hopelessness, we also can no longer feel hope. As such, for anyone interacting with other humans in today’s world, it is imperative to find a way to continue to care without becoming desensitized.
At the start of Parshas Shemos, we learn that a new Pharaoh has arisen in Egypt, one who “did not know Yosef” (1:8). Rashi is puzzled by the idea that anyone in Egypt, let alone the new ruler, could simply not know who Yosef was, given his fame and notoriety in the land. He posits that this Pharaoh did indeed know who Yosef was, but “Asah Atzmo K’ilu Lo Yidao,” he made himself as if he did not know him. In order to carry out his plan of oppression and slavery born from fear of being overrun by a rapidly multiplying Jewish nation, Pharaoh had to deny Yosef’s existence and legacy entirely, even to himself. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, nor did this unique form of purposeful desensitization originate there. Immunizing ourselves against pain and anxiety often requires us to defend against or block out knowledge or truth entirely. This is one approach to dealing with a challenging situation: make like you have no knowledge - plead ignorance - so that you cannot be held accountable for your actions.
Yet this is not the way of Jews or Jewish leaders.
When Pharaoh decrees that all baby boys be thrown into the river, the Gemara (Sota 12) relates that Amram separated from his wife, and all the men of Shevet Levi followed, because he was the Nasi. In response, Miriam chastises her father and encourages him to remarry Yocheved, not allowing the pain and despair around her to seep in and rob her of her powers of prophecy, which foretold of Moshe’s birth. Later still, when Moshe is born and must be hidden, Miriam goes down to the river and stands among the reeds to see what will become of him (2:4). She does not look away, she does not lose hope; she waits and watches “Ladaah Ma Yaaseh Lo,” in order to know what would happen to him, even if the knowledge would be very painful.
Miriam purposely approaches fear and uncertainty in order to gain knowledge, in direct contrast to Pharaoh, who employs denial as a means of escape. Miriam taps into the power of maintaining sensitivity and perspective even through great suffering, and even while those around her give up hope. In fact, all of the Jewish women demonstrate this power as they continue to try to maintain their intimate relationships throughout the slavery, to keep their husbands from becoming desensitized, and indeed the redemption comes through their merit (Shemos Raba 1:12; Gemara Sota 11b).
Finally, we see the complete opposite of desensitization demonstrated by Moshe himself. When living in Pharaoh’s palace as a surrogate grandson, he easily could have ignored the pain and suffering happening just outside his window, and he would be utterly blameless for his ignorance. Yet Moshe chooses instead to turn toward the distress of his people. The pasuk says, “VaYeitzei el Echav, VaYar Bisivlosam,” he went out to his brothers, and saw their affliction (2:11). Rashi explains that Moshe did not just see with his eyes, but rather “nasan einav vilibo lihiyos meitzar aleihem,” he invested his eyes and heart into truly feeling their pain, in order to empathize with them fully. This is in complete contradistinction to the actions of the Pharaoh who feigned ignorance of Yosef; instead of ignoring, repressing, numbing, or denying, Moshe takes the time to actually face the pain of Klal Yisrael head-on, rather than avoiding the knowledge.
Being able to approach pain and suffering and maintain a sense of compassion and empathy can be quite challenging. Desensitization and burnout tend to occur when we do not give ourselves adequate space to process what we are experiencing or witnessing, when we do not take time to reflect, rejuvenate, or gain perspective. Pharaoh knew this, and took advantage of this very human phenomenon to further dehumanize and oppress the Jewish people.
In his book, The Rebbe’s Shabbos Table, R’ Yossi Katz explains according to R’ Nosson of Breslov that the steps of the Shibud reflect Pharaoh’s desire to rob Bnei Yisrael of the time to reflect and regroup spiritually and emotionally, in order to drain and desensitize the people, a sort of psychological oppression. According to the Zohar, the stages of the Shibud (1:14) were as follows:
VaYimarriru es chayeihem, the Egyptians embittered their lives, causing the Jews to become ill and bitter
B’Avodah Kasheh, with difficult labor - the word Kasheh is used here, and is related to the word Kushiyah, or Kasha, which means question – the Jews were overwhelmed with questions about what was happening to them, but were unable to search for answers
BaChomer, with mortar - Chomer is related to the word Chumrah, a very difficult question or stringency
U’biliveinim, and with bricks - the word “liveinim,” which means bricks, is also related to the word Lavan, Hebrew for the color white, and the importance of Libun Hilchasa, whitening or clarifying the Halacha.
With each stage of the oppression, the Jews’ ability to gain clarity or have time to pause and consider their circumstances decreased incrementally, until only confusion, bitterness, and apathy remained. This idea is echoed by the Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim, quoted by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in his book, The Person in the Parsha. The Ramchal writes that, “Pharaoh’s purpose was not only to prevent Bnei Yisrael from having any leisure to make plans… against him, but to deprive them also of the very opportunity to reflect.”
According to the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah (1:28), this is what Moshe saw as a young man in Pharaoh’s palace, when he “saw their affliction (VaYar Bisivlosam).” He saw that they did not have even one day of rest, and he understood the dire ramifications of this situation. He then went to Pharaoh and insisted that he must give them one day of rest, and with Pharaoh’s permission, established Shabbos as that day of respite for Bnei Yisrael from their work.
In graduate school, my classmates always marveled at how my fellow Orthodox Jewish peers and I were able to turn off our devices each week for Shabbos, not working on papers or writing notes or in contact with patients, but simply being, taking the time to connect spiritually and interpersonally. And I always marveled at how my classmates who were not Sabbath observant managed to get through the insanity of graduate school without Shabbos. Shabbos reminds us what is truly important, and to what ends we are so tirelessly working. For me, Shabbos is just one example of the necessary kind of self-care and spiritual rejuvenation needed to prevent desensitization and burnout; in fact, Shabbos encourages us to keep burning.
It is all too easy to become to desensitized to the suffering and pain with which we are surrounded, particularly when our circumstances seem bleak and the landscape unchanging. We try to keep busy and busier, to distract ourselves – we throw ourselves deeper into our work or other occupations to numb out, but only serve to inoculate ourselves against feeling hope and joy. When we are faced with hardship and heartbreak, when we are tempted to turn away, that is when we most need to approach and not avoid, to remain sensitive without becoming desensitized. We do this by taking the time to reflect, to take care of ourselves, by pausing and thinking and questioning, so that we may return to our tasks with renewed energy and perspective.
This week, as a new year on the secular calendar seems to blend seamlessly with and in almost no contrast to the year preceding it, let us be mindful not to make ourselves like Pharaoh and pretend we do not see or know what is happening around us. Let us be careful not to work endlessly without time to reflect, or to be swept away on a current of apathy and desensitization. Instead we must be like Miriam and Moshe; we must understand the value of really, truly seeing the plight of others, of being willing to turn toward suffering in order to pave the way for healing. To do this successfully, we must also take the time to pause and care for ourselves, to make sense of our desensitization, to keep our compassion ignited against the winds of burnout, for only then can we actually effectively care for others.